However, when he became fed up with the way he and other employees were being treated at the exhibit house he worked for, Silvio was convinced by a co-worker to start his own business. With the help of friends and co-workers, he developed a vision for a company that would treat employees with respect.
“We looked at all of the things that were bad at the other company, and whatever we did here, we tried to correct what was creating issues there,” Silvio says.
In 1979, Silvio turned his vision into Exhibit Works. And while he has achieved his goal a company with low employee turnover that has retained many of its original employees he has also created one of the nation’s largest exhibit and event marketing companies. Silvio has grown Exhibit Works from $1.3 million in sales in its first year to $150 million in sales today. The company employs more than 300 people and has offices in Chicago and Los Angeles, in addition to its headquarters in Livonia.
One way that Silvio shows his employees that they are valued is through the Exhibit Works Employee Stock Ownership Program, in which he gives employees shares of company stock each year. That way, as Exhibit Works grows, they feel they have a stake in the company. Shares are held in ESOP accounts, which are accessible to employees upon retirement, and employees now own 15 percent of Exhibit Works.
Silvio also gives employees the opportunity to move up in the company, regardless of job title or previous experience.
“Dominic likes to advance people from within,” says Matt Hubbard, corporate director, marketing and communications at Exhibit Works. “He really grows his business by giving people within here opportunities. So, starting out as a secretary or a shop worker, the person knows that they are not boxed in by that job description. There’s going to be opportunities for him or her here.”
Smart Business spoke with Silvio about his vision for Exhibit Works and the challenges of starting a company.
What was your vision when you founded Exhibit Works?
No. 1 was employees and how to treat them with the respect that they deserve. We’ve continued that throughout the years. That is our No. 1 priority.
We feel that if we treat the employees well, they, in turn, will treat the clients well. It has worked to everyone’s advantage.
I had no idea that we were going to grow as big as we have. My ultimate goal when I got into business was to be a salesman, and a successful salesman. To suddenly have this company and then to have it start to grow was way beyond my expectations. It’s been a nice ride.
It’s been good for our employees who are now ESOP members (and have) employee ownership. It’s been a good experience for the employees and for us.
How do you make Exhibit Works a great place to work?
We try to have company meetings to let (employees) know what is going on. I have an open-door policy. I walk through and talk to employees just to get their temperature. I think they sense and feel the respect we have for them.
How did your ESOP program come about and how does it benefit employees?
We’ve been in business since 1979. In the early ’80s, I was visiting a lawyer who was working on an ESOP program and I learned a lot about it. My interest was also originally (piqued) by a seminar that Comerica Bank put on. They had a speaker who talked about trust, ESOP and a lot of things about running a business.
We’ve been in the ESOP program for probably nine or 10 years. The idea is I want employees to become a part of our growth. Right now, they own (15 percent) of the business and I own the other (85 percent). I give them the stock. I’m not selling them the stock. I give them the stock every year.
There will be a point in time when we will probably stop doing that when there’s too much stock out there. But as they retire, they sell stock back to us and use it as a retirement fund. They get the money pretax. It’s a great deal for them besides having a matching 401(k), they also get the ESOP program.
What challenges did you face starting your own company?
Mainly finances. I had no financial background and we put together a financial proforma. Once we got into trouble, then I had to borrow money from my family my father.
I remortgaged his house and mortgaged mine. And then I borrowed money from him to keep the business going.
How have you grown your company?
It has been in the face of the worst of times when we have grown. We figured out that a lot of people pull in the horns when times get bad. What we’ve done is go right at it.
Newspapers love to have a story about how bad things are and make it bigger than it is. Our goal was (to find out) what can we do to level ourselves off and get through the recession. We’ve grown through recessions. We’ve spent money and increased our efforts during the worst of times.
How have you been able to do that?
I’m just a stubborn Italian. I think it is an attitude thing.
People love to hear (something positive). To sit back and say, ‘We are in trouble and we have to do this and we have to do that’ is a very negative thing. It’s the last thing employees want to hear.
It’s almost like being on the walls of the Alamo. You can give up and walk out there and raise your hands or you can fight until you can’t fight any more. That is the attitude not to give up.
I think that is probably what has kept us in business. We have grown dramatically because of that.
What obstacles have you had to overcome as your company has grown so quickly?
Training people and getting the people who started out with our company into a whole new dimension. Carpenters became executives. Secretaries became assistants and ran projects.
It was not only getting the business but the infrastructure of the business and building it up so it can perform in such a way that customers would want to come back.
To what do you attribute your success?
I’m not able to give up. My father was very ill with multiple sclerosis for 30 years, and he never gave up. That lesson I saw with him and I borrowed the money from him, so I was not going to fail that probably affected me more than anything.
When someone is giving you support like that, you have to perform. If I had to do it on my own, I don’t know if I would have the strength of character that I was pushed into.
HOW TO REACH: Exhibit Works, (734) 525-9010 or www.exhibitworks.com